Ultrabooks are expected to make an impact at next week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, starting with an Intel pre-show press conference on January 9. Intel, which has trademarked the Ultrabook name, is hoping that the new platform will eventually make up about 40% of consumer laptop sales. Indeed, CES researchers have predicted that 30 to 50 new models will appear at the show, to join the dozen launched last year by Asus, HP, Toshiba and others. But whether they will succeed in the marketplace remains to be seen.
Technically, Ultrabooks are thin (less than 20mm) and light (less than 1.4kg) laptops with an SSD (solid-state drive) but no optical drive. They also feature Intel's Fast Start technology and use Intel Core iX processors. You certainly won't see any AMD-based systems carrying Intel's trademarked name.
Sony Vaio X505 from 2004
Of course, there's nothing really new about the Ultrabook platform. Sony, for example, produced the ultrathin Vaio X505 way back in 2004, which was just as thin as today's Ultrabooks, and quite a bit lighter than the spec (1.85lbs instead of 3.1lbs). There have always been Windows laptops without optical drives, including IBM's ThinkPad X range and Toshiba's Portégés.
However, PCs like the Sony X505 were typically £2,000 laptops for executives or "road warriors" who actually needed an ultraportable. For consumers, today's Ultrabooks are more of a fashion item. The question is: will they be willing to pay extra for them?
There's no doubt that Apple has made ultrathin PCs fashionable, even though it didn't originate them. Apple only entered the market in 2008 with the MacBook Air, which was a mediocre design and poor value at $1,799. However, it sold quite well, partly because Mac OS X users had previously been starved of real ultraportables, and partly because Apple spent a fortune on marketing that made it look much better than it was. Later versions were better and dramatically cheaper.
In theory, Ultrabooks should now be able to catch a free ride on the MacBook Air by offering better specifications at lower prices, and by offering a more familiar Microsoft Windows 7 environment. But that's not guaranteed.
The problem is that, for Mac buyers, today's ultrathin MacBook Airs are entry-level systems, and the cheapest type of MacBook you can buy. In the UK, the 11-inch MacBook Air starts at £849, albeit with a low specification (2GB of RAM, 64GB SSD), whereas the cheapest MacBook Pro is £999.
Ultrabook buyers, by contrast, are being asked to shell out roughly twice as much cash as they would spend otherwise. Ultrabook buyers will get more for their £849 or £999 than they would from Apple, but they may not be making that comparison. Instead, they'll be comparing Ultrabooks with standard Windows laptops that typically cost £350 to £500, or perhaps with AMD Fusion-based laptops or netbooks costing £250 to £350.
Take Lenovo's IdeaPad S205, for example. At 18-26.3mm, it's slightly too thick to be an Ultrabook, but it's about the right weight. It also has a 320GB hard drive instead of an SSD. However, it would do exactly the same job for most consumers, and at £299.99, it's roughly a third of the price.
Obviously there are cognoscente who will spend whatever it takes to get what they want, and people who are buying status symbols or off-the-shelf lifestyles. However, this is not the bulk of the Windows PC market. An average consumer with £1,000 to spend could certainly afford an Ultrabook, but might prefer to buy an IdeaPad (or something similar) plus a good digital SLR camera or an LCD TV set instead.
PC manufacturers who operate on cut-throat margins would no doubt be delighted if Ultrabooks increased the average selling price of Windows laptops, but consumers may have other ideas.